Sunday 15 May 2022

Review: The Spaceman and King Arthur

The Spaceman and King Arthur
Cert: U / 93 mins / Dir. Russ Mayberry / Trailer

So many stars. Incredible. Since his earliest memories began, Tommy had always been fascinated by those myriad points of light. At first they were magical, a way to hold his fear of the dark at bay. Then came reason, school and the sciences, and he learned that they were gigantic balls of gas burning away in the galaxy, just like our own sun. By the time Tommy graduated astrophysics at Harvard, they were magical again. No amount of explanation or analysis could dull their power. Quite the opposite.

And he'd never in his life seen this many before. The constellations were familiar and all in place, but there were just... more, somehow. Stars where spaces should be as the familiar ones shone more brightly than ever. When Tommy had started work at NASA this had been his dream of course, but as a calibration technician it had seemed unlikely he'd ever get any closer to the stars than prepping the topmost levels of the launch towers.

But if his mom could see him now. Actually, it would have been faintly reassuring if he'd thought that anyone could see him now. He'd always been happy in his own company, and god knows that's a boon for any astronaut, but nothing could have prepared him for... this. Because there was now precisely no idea of how long this mission was going to take - relative-time or actual - and the experimental shuttle Stardust hadn't been build with claustrophobes in mind. The ceilings were low, the cockpit was tight and the windows were small. But so many stars.

Tommy wasn't looking out of the window. He was lying on top of the shuttle, helmet off, hands behind his head and staring up at the clearest sky he'd ever seen. Zero light-pollution, he imagined. Next to no chemical-pollution, too. If the readouts on the console were correct (and he'd drank enough beer with three of the guys who worked on the tech to know that was certainly questionable), the light-drive had worked and he'd travelled back in time. Precisely how far back remained to be seen, but the lack of light-pollution (after Tommy had put out the fires from his crash landing) would suggest 'significantly'.

The technician-turned-astronaut-turned-technician-again could begin the rest of his repairs at daybreak. For now, he could at least enjoy the view. Because every wondrous point of light was a welcome distraction from the one question which wouldn't go to sleep: how the fuck was Tommy Trimble going to get back home?

Released in 1979 under Disney's Buena Vista label for more adult-fare, The Spaceman And King Arthur is a textbook example of the frenzied genre-mashing that occurred as Hollywood transitioned its modus operandi from Historical Fantasy Farce (Robin Hood, The Sword In The Stone, Zorro - all high on action and cheap to produce) to the science-fiction craved by audiences in the era of the moon landings, Star Trek and Kubrick's 2001.

Pressure was on the studios to maximise profit margins with the imagination of the latter for the price of the former. Together, director Russ Mayberry and writer Don Tait quickly found that the best way to achieve this was literally combining the two. And so a re-tooling of Mark Twain's 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was brought into being, albeit with one more key thematic ingredient which was kept out of the marketing.

This was, in fact, closer to Weird Tales alumni Robert Bloch's own twisted take on the story from 1934, Dead On Time, which received praise in the pages of that pulp journal but ruffled few feathers elsewhere. Nevertheless, Mayberry had Disney's studio staff scour second-hand bookshops and public libraries to buy, barter and often steal as many remaining copies as possible, so that the reveal occurring precisely half way through the film's 93-minute runtime would come as a surprise to audiences...

The language barrier was maddening. At times it was close to non-existent and at others - now, specifically - it was like being in a different country. Then Tommy remembered, he was in a different country. But they'd invented English for crying out loud, why did some of them have so much trouble speaking it?

"And trulie thy hae no kinge in thy lande?" Gawain looked genuinely uncomprehending, like a dog cornered with a geometry problem.

"That's right, no king. I thought we'd been through this? We've got a president, okay? Although I assure you it doesn't always feel like a better solution..."

"But how dost thy peoples pertain to lawes? Who ist to keepe charge in ye--"

"Look, it's a long story okay? Not always pleasant, but nowhere near as messy as France!"

"Sire, didst thou-- Ist thon visitor from France? A spy perchance?"

King Arhur waved his deputy down. "Fear not, Sir Gawain, there will be time for this later." He turned to Tommy. "In the meantime traveller, perhaps you would be so kind as to furnish us with an explanation of how exactly you appeared in my kingdom, on the day after the firestorm, approaching my castle unbidden in such strange tunic and bearing the severed head... of a dead-ite?"

Tommy sighed, hung his head and looked up under his brow. "Well, I was kinda hoping you could fill me in on that last part, yourself." He eyed the sack at Gawain's feet, and the seepage still oozing from it. "Looks like you need a pest-controller, and your magic-man in the dress over there doesn't seem to want to get his hands dirty. Now are you going to let me help, or are you going to let me go?"

Merlin and Gawain bristled, although King Arthur was more sanguine having already seen to the heart of the problem. Alisande stifled a smile; this stranger's insolence was breathtaking. Tommy, however, was rapidly running out of patience, not least because he knew there were hundreds more of those things shuffling their way toward the castle. And they didn't care about monarchical hierarchy either...

And surprise, it did. The opening week saw hundreds of thousands of parents take their young charges to the cinema for a wholesome romp through Arthurian legend in the company of a beloved cast of British Comedy Royalty. So when the Army Of The Dead broke their way into Camelot, beheading, disembowelling and just eating anything in their path, queues quickly formed at the box office again - this time for refunds. But the damage had been done. This next generation of filmgoers had witnessed the most visceral, adrenaline fuelled trolley-dash through historical terror that Disney would ever put their stamp on...

Recalled and banned by the MPAA and the BBFC alike, it would be another twenty years before The Spaceman And King Arthur saw a domestic release; and even this was as a region-free unofficial transfer of a recovered print on an independent Italian DVD label. By this time critical culture had hardened itself to horror-crossover fare, and Disney responded by releasing a sanitised cut of the film, claiming this had always been the director's intention.

A 2003 interview in the Radio Times with supporting actor Rodney Bewes belied this however, as he recalled "We had the best fucking time on that set! Getting paid for sliding around in pigs' innards every day, lashing it at the banquet table every night, and knowing there was no way it'd get too far out of the gate to damage our careers? I don't give a shit about Merlin, that's real magic..."

The figure limped down the stone-walled corridor, its rasps of effort fizzing in the air like a hundred bats' wings. The eyes seemed to glow as its stare fixed Tommy, although he knew this was an illusion created by the flaming sconces which lit the wall between strategic arrowslits. The remains of its jaw grated and sprayed rotting flesh, as the creature hissed air it no longer needed to breathe. Dear god, it was trying to speak...

"Trri-i-i-innn... Tri-i-innnd..." It lifted an accusing finger at the spaceman as its broadsword trailed from the other hand.

"This is what you wanted Mordred, you dumb shit!" Tommy crowed, with a swagger he didn't feel. He just knew that even now, the best way to defeat this darkest of knights was to use its own anger against it. "This is your prize! You command the Army of the Dead now! But did you seriously think they were going to let you do that while you were still alive??" Tommy almost felt sorry for Mordred. The transformation process had taken six days, and reports had come in of his screams for all of those. Merlin was the army's necromancer - in some ways its creator - but he didn't control them. Mordred, on the other hand, had been hamstrung by his own ambition. Again. Well, if he was too stupid to learn a lesson, that was hardly Tommy's fault. The least this boy could do was help out everybody by trying to teach him again.

Suddenly a sharp inhalation - again unnecessary, the last vestiges of human reflex echoing through Mordred's reanimated remains - as the former-knight and perennial-asshole snapped into a ninety degree fighting stance, sword raised in front of him in a two-handed grip. This sudden jerk had opened the rotting gash in Mordred's stomach - a wound from the last time they fought which would now never heal - and a clump of shrivelled innards flopped its way noisily onto the flagstones with a comet's trail of maggots in its wake. Mordred didn't even notice.

Shit. Merlin was controlling him now. With the wizard's guile, the warrior's reflexes and no capacity to feel pain, this was going to be trickier than before. Hand-to-hand combat was out of the question. Tommy reached around to the rear of the harness made for him by Alisande's father the saddler, retrieved his newly tar-powered flame thrower, and flipped the ignition.

Barbecue twice in one week?

Fuck it, Tommy was on holiday after all...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…
(Yes, the review above is mostly sarcasm. The actual film is staggeringly unfocused.)

...and if you want to listen to some words about this film which take it far less seriously, are far more sweary and have All The Drink involved, here's a podcast version you might be interested in:

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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